On the last port day of our Panama Canal cruise, we spent the day on an amazing shore excursion on Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. We were able to visit Stingray City and feed stingrays in the wild, and snorkel at a coral reef. Next, we visited one of the best beach clubs on Grand Cayman Island to have lunch and relax.
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How we chose our shore excursion
We chose the Stingray Encounter, Reef, Snorkel, Beach & Lunch shore excursion that Princess Cruises offered, for $119.95 per person. The entire tour was scheduled to last about six hours.
I definitely wanted some beach relaxation time, I love to snorkel, and I had always wanted to get up close with stingrays. Stingray City is actually one of the most popular tourist activities on Grand Cayman, with hundreds of thousands of people visiting each year. A tour that included all of these things sounded perfect for the three of us.
We get to George Town, Grand Cayman
Arriving into the port of George Town at 7 AM, we were thrilled that the weather looked perfect: blue skies accentuated by a few puffy white clouds, and no rain in sight.
After a quick stop for breakfast at the buffet, we headed to the theater to meet our excursion group of about 20 people. George Town is a tender port, so it took a little longer than usual to make it to shore.
We met our driver who would bring us by mini-bus to the Cayman Island Yacht Club where our chartered boat was waiting for us. Making our way through traffic on the crowded main street, we noticed that it’s very commercial and had more familiar US chain restaurants than I would have expected. A couple in our group kept shouting, “Look! Burger King! Look! Subway!” We found that amusing.
We meet our boat captain
Twenty-five minutes later we were at the dock, where we met Captain Chris and his first mate. Our ship for the day was about a 40-footer with bench seating around the perimeter. You could also sit on the bow of the boat, which was fairly flat with a short railing around it.
After a brief safety talk, we were on our way! We first passed through a canal lined with some beautiful (and very large!) waterfront homes. The canal was a no wake zone, so it took a while to get out to the open ocean at our slow pace.
At Stingray City
When we arrived at Stingray City, which is a sandbar in the North Sound, there were only a couple other boats already there. We were able to hop off the back of the boat and stand up in the waist-high water. The stingrays came right up to us, looking for a snack.
If you’re a non-swimmer, you absolutely could participate in this part of the tour. No swimming is necessary to visit the stingrays, even though Stingray City is over a mile off shore.
Our guides had told us the rules about interacting with the stingrays to ensure that the animals and we would not be injured. We were given bits of squid to feed them, which you hold in your closed fist. The rays sucked the squid right out of our fists like little vacuums!
Are stingrays dangerous? We all know that naturalist Steve Irwin’s tragic death was caused by a Bull Stingray attack. However, Southern Stingrays are generally docile, and will just swim away if they feel threatened. Out of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit each year, there have only been a few reports of people being stung at Stingray City. No fatalities have been attributed to a stingray attack at this location.
Our guides picked the stingrays up so we could interact with them. I didn’t try this, but several in our group received kisses and “back massages” from the rays! I did pet a few of the stingrays, though.
We had plenty of time at this location, about 45 minutes, and we were never made to feel rushed. After about twenty minutes on the sandbar a few more boats pulled up and anchored near us, so the area did start to feel a little crowded.
Is it ethical to visit Stingray City?
Many people today are choosing to not support animal-centered tourism. The stingrays in Grand Cayman are not held in captivity, but they have come to rely on receiving food from human visitors to their habitat.
A 2008 study led by researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada revealed that the stingrays at Stingray City have more injuries and weaker immune systems than animals without high levels of human interaction.
On the other hand, providing food for this particular population of stingrays allows them to focus on rest and reproduction. The large amount of tourists may also provide them some protection from both human and animal predators.
The stingray tours provide many jobs to the local population, adding millions of dollars of revenue to the island each year. Some estimates say that each stingray brings in $500,000 per year, and there are 60-70 rays that live on and around the sandbar.
“If the tourists aren’t there then these animals could just be hunted or eaten. The best way is to educate the operators and the customers.”
-Vincent Janik of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University, in The Guardian
The decision is up to you whether it’s ethical to visit Stingray City. Personally, I wish that tours were limited to reduce the number of humans and boats on the sandbar at any given time. Injuries to the rays from boats are not uncommon.
Snorkeling at the coral reef
When we got to the reef, located just a few minutes away from Stingray City, we were so excited to snorkel! We had just purchased a waterproof camera for my daughter, and I was going to use it to take tons of pictures of all the gorgeous fish.
The tour company provided snorkel vests and basic snorkel gear, but you may prefer to bring your own set. We love the full-face snorkel masks. It’s a much better experience than struggling with a traditional set!
I went under with the camera and took a few shots. Resurfacing, I tried to check the display to see how the first pictures turned out. The screen was black. Still unfamiliar with the camera model, I pressed this button and that button, but nothing. Then I noticed. There was water INSIDE the camera. The seal was defective!
Sadly, we ended up losing all the pictures from Stingray City, and we couldn’t take any underwater photos at the reef.
So, I’m including a short YouTube video from the tour company (it’s under two minutes) that shows both the stingray experience and the fish at the reef. Captain Chris is in the video at the beginning, holding a stingray!
Even though we had a major camera malfunction, we enjoyed our time at the reef. We were able to stay for about 45 minutes at this location as well.
I spotted blue tangs, butterfly fish, yellowtail snapper, and several other species of tropical fish swimming around the beautiful coral garden.
At the beach! Rum Point Club
After our less-than-stellar experience at a beach club in Jamaica a few days before, we didn’t have high expectations for this one. We tied up to the long, L-shaped dock jutting out from the beach, and spotted what looked like a little village set up on shore.
We had a couple of hours to relax at the Rum Point Club before we needed to get back on the boat to return to the yacht club. Captain Chris told us he would blow his horn as a 15-minute warning, and then again as we needed to be back on board.
Walking closer to the beach, we saw a dining area set up with picnic tables under a canopy. Palm trees shaded parts of the beach, and other areas had full sun. Loungers and hammocks were set up in both areas.
There was a restaurant, a bar, and a gift shop, each in its own well-maintained and brightly-colored building.
We had given our lunch orders earlier in the day, so our food arrived just minutes after we did. We were famished after being out on the water in the sun for a few hours! I had the catch of the day, Mr. SBC had the jerk chicken, and my daughter had the chicken tenders. It was basic beach food, but the portions were large which we appreciated.
The next order of business was to get a cocktail and relax on the beach. The Wreck Bar offered a small list of tropical-themed drinks, featuring the Mudslide, for $9.50-$10.
Legend has it that the Wreck Bar actually invented the Mudslide in the 1950s! The story goes that a bartender named Old Judd invented the frozen version for the locals, but tourists loved it and spread the recipe around the world. Rum Point doesn’t claim to have invented it, except to say that some time in the 1970s, a patron asked for a White Russian. Not having any cream, the bartender substituted Bailey’s Irish Cream and their version of the drink was born.
Beer and wine was also available, including the locally-made Caybrew Draft. Non-alcoholic selections included sodas, milkshakes, and virgin daiquiris.
They accepted both US dollars as well as Cayman dollars, but change is given in Cayman.
We found a somewhat secluded area and plopped on our loungers to have a rest in the sun and enjoy the scenery.
There were quite a few people enjoying the water, and I noticed a couple of snorkelers near the shore as well. The long dock encouraged visiting boats to tie up quite some distance from the swimmers and snorkelers, so it looked very safe.
I went to check out the gift shop, and I was pleasantly surprised! The shop was well-merchandised and stocked with higher-quality souvenirs than many of the shops we’ve visited in port. The prices were pretty high, though.
Soon we heard the fifteen-minute warning horn from our boat, and we knew it was time to pack up our things and return. That two hours went by so quickly, relaxing under the palm trees!
What did we think?
- The price for the tour was fairly reasonable. It was six hours long and included lunch, transportation, lots of time on the boat, and access to the beach club.
- We loved our guide, Captain Chris. He and his first mate were friendly and engaging. They obviously love their jobs!
- I’m not sure whether so much human interaction is good for the wild stingrays. They’re obviously used to people, and have come to rely on them for food. However, there are too many boats allowed to anchor near the sandbar at one time.
- I really enjoyed snorkeling at the reef. We saw so many beautiful fish! We had about 45 minutes here which was perfect.
- Rum Point Club was lovely and relaxing. With just one day on the island, we didn’t have enough time to unwind and enjoy it. I would definitely go back and spend an entire day there.
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Have you been to Stingray City on Grand Cayman? What did you think about the experience? Let me know in the comments below!
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